As such it may blur the “...boundaries between academic curated exhibitions and exhibitions that are really marketing…” (Palmer 2008, 35). These garments were obviously not for sale, but their labels were certainly on show, no doubt elevating the garments and their respective brands through association. Hilton Kramer, art critic for the New York Observer, commented on this phenomenon: “These are very cynical museological decisions, determined to break down the distinctions between art and commerce,” and felt of museum/fashion display that “It is creating the impression — and I think there’s a lot of reality to the impression — that the museum is for sale” (qtd. in Steele 2008, 18). Kramer then went on to categorically declare that garments are not art (qtd. in Steele 2008, 18).
The uninspiring entry galleries at the Met 5th Avenue with their elevated mannequins don’t help to refute Kramer’s imputations. Positioned high above the throngs below, untouchable and remote, their details could not be seen. As a result, the garments simply registered as flashy set-dressing. Those displayed were not the best selection from the clothing genre as a whole, and were not even the designers’ best work within their own respective ecclesiastical-inspired oeuvres, especially when there are many relevant and interesting pieces to choose from. Real-estate-wise however, the display was certainly a good way to include a healthy number of Versace pieces in a contained space, given that Versace was a sponsor of the exhibition.
The debate about fashion in the museum is not new, and is ongoing. The 2008 Giorgio Armani exhibition — which followed on the heels of a US$15 million donation to the Guggenheim coffers from the label — was a lightning rod for eliciting criticism from the media (Steele 2008, 17). Discussion arose from the fact that the Armani garments were not considered “museum objects” and that the “Guggenheim does not even collect decorative arts,” among other critiques (Palmer 2008, 34). A particularly egregious corporate incursion in the museum realm was The Manchu Dragon: Costumes of China (1980) exhibition, which “featured magnificent garments, but their symbolic meaning was completely ignored…” (Steele 2008, 11). As if this acultural and tone-deaf representation wasn’t enough, the indignities compounded:
Worst of all, visitors to the exhibition were overwhelmed by the smell of Yves Saint Laurent’s new perfume, Opium, which Vreeland described as “capturing the essence of China.” Considering how hard the Chinese government tried to keep opium out of China, and how the British fought two wars to force them to import it, Vreeland’s neo-colonialist celebration of the “exotic” Orient seemed like a cruel joke. (Steele 2008, 11)
Steele claims however, that the “real crisis” in these museum/corporate/fashion assemblages “came in 1983, when Mrs Vreeland’s retrospective of Yves Saint Laurent became the first major museum show devoted to a living designer” (2008, 12). This exhibition, in turn, caused “tremendous controversy” due to the close ties to “the economic interests of that particular designer” (Steele 2008, 19). Harold Koda, former curator-in-chief of the Met Costume Institute, and co-curator of the notorious Armani/Guggenheim exhibition, identified the hypocrisy in these critiques when he answered a question about the “role of money, glamour, and politics in the fashion world” with a wry “What, as opposed to the art world?” (Koda qtd. in Steele 2008, 18-19). Then as now, commercial influences on public spaces are something that must be monitored. This discussion also speaks to a need for a better permanent space for a fashion exhibition, as defending the legitimacy of an entire discipline, namely fashion studies, is an argument that unfortunately still needs to be waged each time garments are installed in the museum setting; in spite of (or perhaps as an indirect result of) the overwhelming success of recent museum-based fashion exhibitions.
Regarding gaps in the Heavenly Bodies exhibition, noticeably missing from a show of this nature in this particular venue was visual commentary and connections to the syncretic origins of the Afro-Caribbean and Latin American iconography that could easily have served as inspiration for some of the garments on display (Tavárez 2017). The main critical concern however, was not actually with the objects exhibited, as the show was beautifully and creatively staged, but rather with the larger messages and metanarratives the entire exhibit communicated as a whole. Any exploration of the Catholic Church in a publicly funded institutional space needs to be communicating the reality of that religious organization. This exhibition only presented one side of a story that is currently being fought out in contemporary society, resulting in a drastic asymmetry of message. Susan Sontag talks about these papal initiatives conjoined with art in “An Argument about Beauty” from her collection of essays At the Same Time (2007):
Responding at last, in April 2002, to the scandal created by the revelation of innumerable cover-ups of sexually predatory priests, Pope John Paul II told the American cardinals summoned to the Vatican, “A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize.” (3)
Through alignment with prestigious high fashion and the illustrious reputation of the Met, this exhibition functions as propaganda that showcases a singular dominant voice, in this case a form of visual proselytizing for a normative Catholic history. Missing in all this gorgeous display was commentary surrounding Church misogyny, the Church and the sexual abuse of children, the Church and homophobic activity, Church opposition to reproductive rights, and the negative effects of colonial clerical incursions, all of which was noticeably absent. There is a didactic quality to all museum exhibitions, and if one sees a representation of only a benign continuation of the status quo on display, then there can be no evolution of social awareness; in this case, leaving only the history that has seen the Church hierarchy use its enormous wealth and power to dominate and cover up its own misdeeds and exploitation for millennia. As Sontag argues:
Is it too odd that the pope likens the Catholic Church to a great — that is, beautiful — work of art? Perhaps not, since the inane comparison allows him to turn abhorrent misdeeds into something like the scratches in the print of a silent film or craquelure covering the surface of an Old Master painting, blemishes that we reflexively screen out or see past. The pope likes venerable ideas. And beauty, as a term signifying (like health) an indisputable excellence, has been a perennial resource in the issuing of peremptory evaluations. (3)
There are other themes and historical narratives that can be discerned peeking out between craquelure, or contained within the pentimento if one only looks a little closer, and in the spirit of a more nuanced representation these should have been curated into this exhibition. Where was the scarlet Versace papal gown Nikki Minaj wore to the Grammy’s? Her costume was a powerful visual rebuke to the lack of women in authority at the Vatican. Similarly, the very pregnant Beyoncé, evoking a non-European holy mother and goddess figure during her Grammy’s performance, should have been represented. Madonna’s naughty nuns found on her Rebel Heart tour in garters and stockings and wimples with their cross-shaped poles have their place here; and if nothing else, one of Madonna’s corsets layered with a multitude of crucifixes from her early fame should have been featured. The closest to a transgression on display was a draped Rik Owen robe that had an opening where a bare penis had peeked out during his runway show. Unfortunately, for all of the exquisite finery on show there was a lack of critical analysis of the genesis of some of the pieces, and therefore an unreflective acceptance of only one voice: the gilded, institutional, papal voice. Given the ongoing struggles of survivors of myriad victimizations by Catholic clergy members, it was a glaring oversight.